All around me I sense the changing light even as the fog hangs on to midday. I tiptoe to keep from freezing my toes on the bathroom tile. It is still cold enough for socks on my way down to the coffeepot in the violet morning. Winter is throwing off his woolly coat, those short, dark days and frosted grass, just a little more every day. Mike has cleared the garden boxes and they are waiting for the last frost to pass before planting. In tiny pockets, quietly, almost secretly, little signs of new life are pushing through the dirt. Crocus emerge first, then the golden daffodils followed by the tulip trees.
I told you back at the beginning of winter, I did not grow up in a church steeped in the language and practices of the liturgy. As a Baptist, I was versed in the Bible, Vacation Bible School and potluck picnics with lots of visiting. We knew about hard to pronounce stuff like Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Sadducees and Pharisees, and that wee little man Zacchaeus. Even as a small girl, I knew that all us sinners could be washed white as snow. It might be popular to bash the Baptists, but I grew up knowing Jesus loved me, plain and simple.
As a church family, we prepared for and celebrated Christmas, Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter. Once we became church members, we had little envelopes with our name printed on the outside for weekly tithes. People missed us when we weren't in Sunday school. We got notes in the mail that said so. The total Sunday School attendance was posted on a wooden board in the sanctuary every Sunday. Together we took communion about once a quarter. It was Welches in mini glass cups and tiny crackers passed down the aisle on a circular tray.
When I started dating Mike, I was introduced to Episcopal worship that included priest collars, flowing robes and embroidered shawls. There was no visiting once we crossed the threshold into the sanctuary before the service.
There was quiet.
Room was carved out for prayer and reflection. We knelt on little velvet padded steps. We read and responded from the Book of Common Prayer and we walked down the aisle to take communion at the rail. There was a silver cup of real wine and a basket of baked bread.
Every service, every week.
Our worship observed a language and a calendar that included Advent, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Lent.
At first, it was unfamiliar to me, and I often felt out of sync with all of the movements, response calls and turning pages in the Book of Common Prayer. With time and many questions, I began to understand what all the symbols, seasons and traditions meant. I slowly found a solid rhythm of rest and devotion. I loved being a Baptist, but I also grew to love following a year of worship that placed me in the life of Christ starting at Advent and moving through Easter. When I got married, the two traditions also got married.
Lent, I think, is a married word. It is two thoughts coming together as one: the word "lencten" in Old English means springtime and "lenzin" in Old German shares a root with the word for long. The lengthening days of spring coincide with the long and sacred light of approaching Easter. But first, there is the journey from Palm Sunday to Good Friday.
That journey to the cross makes Lent a time of fasting, of emptying out. It is sobering to think of Jesus gathering the twelve disciples into his inner circle knowing full well that one would betray him with a kiss and the rest would scatter to the wind when he most needed his close friends to stay near.
My own attempts at fasting began together with Mike back in our newlywed days. We started with tried and true ways by fasting for forty days from things like television, sweets, chocolate, caffeine, meats and alcohol. I saw fairly quickly that every time I was offered or reached for one of these things, my heart and mind took pause to remember why. Why was I removing that item for this time? What was I truly hungry for?
In the emptying out process, I found there is room created for new practices. Any time we hollow out a habit, we create new space to breath, to wonder and to question what fills us up. I have come to see the Lenten season as a time for both fasting and celebration, for both subtraction and addition, for both emptying out and filling up. Those are White Pitcher words!
First the emptying out. This year I chose a food fast every Thursday. Mike and I did it together, each in the course of our own day and mostly keeping it to ourselves. At every mealtime and that late afternoon lull when I might have been reaching for food, I'd ask myself what am I really hungry for? The possible list is humbling: comfort, accomplishment, applause, attention, acceptance, validation, revenge, forgiveness, victory, friendship, tenderness, peace and quiet, love, success or excitement.
Every time my stomach growled or something smelled delicious, I realized that God created us with hunger and thirst by His hand. My hunger pangs tell me something of my original design. In those rumblings, I tried to remind myself to fill up with something deeper, longer lasting or for someone else. Things like prayers, reading, friendship, thoughtfulness, extra writing and gift giving. I wrote a few letters, something I seem to never get around to and my Mama would say is a lost art.
I have to be honest with you, I thought fasting one day each week was tough. It required both my physical and mental energy and stamina. I would look up in the middle of the week and realize Thursday was around the corner and have to brace myself. I suddenly wanted to bake chocolate chip cookies every Thursday. I tell you, there are extra Thursdays during Lent!
In some ways my desire to fill up with food was heightened and I had to practice re-directing that desire. I retraced Jesus' response when his hunger was put to the test. I clung to the truth that my life is not by bread alone, but by every word from my Father's lips. (Deut. 8:3, Matt 4:4) After reading I had to practice that type of sustenance. I had to wait on manna. While I wasn't tasting food, I tuned my tastebuds toward God. How exactly? What I did wasn't anything earth shattering, pretty ordinary and small really. I went about my day with meetings, laundry, email, dishes and the dog. But I also made an point to tune into nature, opening a window to hear frogs, birds or the wind, I took walks in the woods, I kept current on my list of prayers and I surrounded myself with extra Scripture.
I rested on Psalm 119:103,
How sweet are Your words to my taste,
Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
There are many ways to fast and keep it a healthy practice for your body and soul. (Though I don't recommend it if you have chronic health issues, you're recovering from illness, surgery or birth or breast feeding your baby.) I am still learning how to do it well. There were a few practical things that helped me through these fasting days. I'm not saying these are best practices, but they worked for me for the seven Thursdays during Lent. I kept my ritual morning coffee, but then I might just have an iron-clad stomach. All throughout the day, I drank plenty of still water alternating with sparkling water over ice. Mike discovered adding a splash of lime juice and that has become a favorite drink for us. Into the evening on cold nights, I sipped hot mandarin tea with honey. Just that small squeeze of honey reminded me to reach for honey from the rock. I went to bed with a tall glass of water and a few good vitamins.
Both the day before and the day after kept me on my toes as I tried to prepare for my fast and recover well. There is an art to breaking a fast and the best advice I can give you is to do it slowly, with small and nutritious bites.
Along with emptying out, I tried to fill my heart with thanksgiving, celebration, prayer and thoughtfulness. Jesus did this type of filling up on the way to emptying himself on that terrible cross. He celebrated life and love at weddings, wells and suppers.
I know plenty of people who fasted during Lent from social media for a day a week, for a week at a time or for all forty days (actually forty seven). I bet it was cleansing to their soul palate. that is what I was looking for, but I went just the opposite way. Still I found new tastebuds. This year I turned my social media into a way to feed my soul and hopefully share it as well. I added my first Lent photo-a-day challenge.
The Challenge: Take a photo each day during Lent to reflect a single word. Post the photo on social media under #rethinkchurch.
I accepted a prepared list of words with a date on which to post. Here is the 2016 list.
I had no idea what to expect. Would it be too much posting? With that kind of frequency, would people be annoyed or encouraged? What does it mean to rethink church from love? What would it do for my own view of Christ and my own heart and soul? How can I hold in my heart a cup both hollow and running over?
It seemed to me like living a life of flowers in a concrete and asphalt world or my walks in the woods where fog and blooms shared the path.
I had a few hopes for in my interior life. I would use the daily habit of both fasting and celebrating, both filling up and emptying out to draw near to God. My filling up would come by capturing an image for a single word to reflect my faith. This discipline seemed consistent with clearing out space for an unhurried and soul-keeping life. I used the challenge to continue practicing the Game with Minutes, spend some time rethinking church and adding value to my posts.
Some of the words were challenging: covenant, surround, heal, settle, witness and need. These gave me pause. I tried to dig down into the word and the image. I asked myself questions, what does the word truly means, what pre-conceived ideas do I carry about this word, how can I see the word fresh and from outside of the church life I love? At times, I snapped the photo on the day I posted it, at other times I looked through my collected photos and found the snapshot that spoke to me in the moment. Sometimes the photo I thought I might use, turned out not to be the one when the time to post came. This project filled me with creativity and wonderings about how to express my faith.
Outside my window the dirt heaved, a bud broke through to light, a bloom opened.
I began with no words accompanying my post other than just the numbered day and the given word, but soon I added more words to express the thought. Gradually, naturally, my life threaded itself into the daily post and that seemed right to me; a way to give it a heartbeat, a crossroads where real life and faith meet, a moment where dirt and glory collide. Integration like this means mending, wholeness, and it was happening in this practice.
Friends, you just never know how your words and photos might speak to other hearts if you give them as gifts out of your faith. I heard from a dear friend who saw my posts and was inspired. We had lunch (not on Thursday!), we laughed and we renewed our bonds. I ran into another friend, a beloved older gentleman who moved across the mountains last year. He hugged my neck and said he looked forward to my Lenten posts everyday. My fasting and celebrations began in my heart, found a place to gather and land and finally became part of real life.
Why tell you now? I am telling you while the experience is fresh and raw. And though I have traveled along way, the season is not quite over. I have grown with the lengthening light, just a little each day. I suppose I want you to say, "Me too!". There is still time for you to try your own way of emptying out or filling up before this Easter Sunday. The challenge words for these last three days are path, enter and celebrate. Want to try one? We have three days of waiting for the blooms through the fog, for the resurrection. We can wait together.
When I wake up this Sunday, I will be bursting with joy that I have purposely bottled up. The stone will roll away and I will see that the tomb is empty. Instead of loss and confusion like the first women to the tomb, I can instantly understand why the grave was empty and know mine will be too. Those sisters had the harder wait. It is already gathering on my lips and in my heart to say, "He is risen!". I cannot wait to hear your resounding, "He is risen indeed!".